Misplaced Indian exceptionalism has perpetuated myths about the so-called Muslim world even as they fly in the face of facts
In 2002, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, otherwise projected as a rare ‘moderate’ in his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), fell back upon his core ideological characteristic—anti-Muslim rhetoric. He claimed wherever Muslims live, they do not like to do so in coexistence with others.
The sweeping Muslim-bashing was seen as Vajpayee’s attempt to rescue his standing among the hardcore elements of the BJP and its parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The hardliners were angry over his public chastising of Narendra Modi, who rose to become India’s Prime Minister in 2014, for the pogrom of Muslims under the latter’s watch as the highest elected official of the western state of Gujarat. Vajpayee is also believed to have privately pressed for Modi’s resignation amid global outrage over the pogrom and angered the hardliners further.
India has changed radically since 2002 under the political dominance of Hindu nationalists. The BJP has even given up its pretense. It no longer needs the ‘[liberal] mask useful only for theatre‘, as a colleague famously described Vajpayee, with BJP’s rise as a hegemon under Modi’s leadership since 2014. Muslim demonisation and dehumanisation are par for the course. They have been a staple of India’s media and political discourse over the last eight years, not to mention mob attacks, lynching, weaponisation of laws, and open calls for genocide.
Much of this discourse revolves around the supposed wrongs of their co-religionists far away from the Indian shores to target India’s Muslims and unfounded demographic anxieties. The worries surround the supposed ballooning of the Muslim population and its threats to the country’s basic Hindu character. They are amplified through both traditional as well as social media, echoing the underlying message of Vajpayee’s comments back in 2002 in far cruder terms virtually 24X7. Wherever Muslims are in the majority, they do not let others exist is the broader messaging to ensure the political status quo by projecting BJP as the only bulwark against the so-called Muslim threat.
The increasing invisiblisation of the marginalised Muslim minority, accounting for 14 percent of the population, has been one of the manifestations of India’s radical transformation under the BJP. None of the 36 Indian states or federally administered territories have an elected Muslim head or chief minister. There is no Muslim elected official in 15 states; 10 have one each mostly in charge of the insignificant minority affairs. None of the ruling BJP’s 303 lawmakers in India’s lower House of Parliament is Muslim. BJP has not re-nominated its three Muslim lawmakers to Parliament’s Upper House. This means the lone Muslim federal Cabinet minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who heads the minority affairs ministry, will lose his position.
Even the so-called secular political parties, which are dependent on Muslim voters, have been trying to avoid being identified with Muslims, and forget about speaking up for them. In an April 2022 piece, journalist Shekhar Gupta noted they cannot afford to be seen close to Muslims or a Muslim cause and called it ‘suicidal in today’s electoral politics.’ Gupta wrote there is squeamishness about calling out targeting of the poorest Muslims, which he called a pattern. He noted that BJP has psyched the secular parties out. He added they are too paranoid to even be seen to be speaking up for them, for instance, most recently in the aftermath of violence triggered following processions of ‘lumpenised’ Hindus, who carried weapons and played provocative music in Muslim ghettos. Police actions have invariably followed such violence in what Gupta called ‘a 21st-century form of colonial-style collective punishment’ of demolition of Muslim houses.
Gupta wrote no major political party would even hold a public iftar during the month of Ramadan, nor would many leaders be seen there. Modi has added to his appeal by shunning Muslims, publicly refusing to wear the Muslim skullcap while donning every possible Indian headgear, and ending the practice of hosting receptions to mark Muslim festivals. Bigotry, once confined to private spaces, has become a badge of honour and a tool for climbing up the ladder, particularly in the media and politics.
India’s servile Muslim leaders and public figures have not done the community any favours by pandering to the majoritarianism and exceptionalism of an India invulnerable to wrongs that happen in Muslim countries. Patronisingly regarded as the ‘good Muslim’, they are expected to acknowledge Hindu largesse towards Muslims in India, and the lack of such generosity in Muslim-majority countries. Muslim countries were again in the crosshairs of the belligerent Indian media amid the diplomatic row over the derogatory comments of two BJP functionaries about the Prophet Muhammad.
Veteran lawmaker Ghulam Nabi Azad’s tone-deaf farewell speech upon his retirement from the Indian Parliament’s Upper House in February 2021 reinforced what a ‘good Muslim’ requires for majoritarian validation. He portrayed a fantasized India and attacked Muslim-majority countries saying none of them have any reason to be proud of anything. He curiously months earlier complained about being ostracised and said many fellow Hindu Congress candidates have stopped inviting him to campaign for them fearing they will lose votes if a Muslim canvassed for them.
Azad echoed a favourite trope of the Hindu nationalists, who claim that no Muslim country is secular, and claimed Muslims fight themselves when they have no one left to battle. He called India the safest for minorities, claiming religious plurality comes naturally to India. Azad got an ovation for riding roughshod over his fellow Muslims by avoiding any mention of the troubles they faced under the BJP, whose ideological forefathers wanted them to stay in India ‘wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing — not even citizen’s rights.’
Azad was way off the mark and particularly vis-a-vis southeast Asia, a bastion of religious coexistence and home to 25 percent of Muslims globally. Indonesia and Malaysia, two of the region’s Muslim-majority countries, in particular, are the biggest refutation of BJP-RSS’s standard propaganda. That the world’s tallest–Garuda Vishnu Kencana—and sixth-highest Hindu statues are located in Indonesia and Malaysia speaks volumes, especially about the status of the Hindu minorities in these countries.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo inaugurated the Garuda Vishnu Kencana at a ceremony in Bali in presence of the country’s top leaders including one of his predecessors, Megawati Soekarnoputri, in September 2018. Thousands attended the ceremony, where traditional dancers performed and fireworks lit up the night sky in a grand celebration of Indonesian multiculturalism. Speaking on the occasion, Widodo called the statue a masterpiece and a source of pride for Indonesia. He said the statue shows the nation has not only inherited extraordinary masterpieces such as the ninth-century Buddhist temple complex Borobudur and Hindu temple complex Prambanan but is able to create globally-recognized cultural masterpieces such as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. He called the statue, which was completed after 28 years, a historical footprint of Indonesia.
The 75m tall sculpture of the Hindu God Vishnu sitting astride the mythical bird Garuda, said to be his companion and vessel, atop Ungasan Hill in the Garuda Vishnu Kencana Cultural Park is the world’s largest copper statue and the third tallest. With a wingspan of 65m, it stands on a pedestal, making its total height (121m) 30m taller than the Statue of Liberty. With his eyes half closed, the statue showcases Vishnu, who is seen as the preserver and protector of the universal equilibrium, in a meditative state, riding on Garuda’s back.
The statue is the centrepiece of Bali, a Hindu enclave in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally. Hindus form two percent of the country’s population and 90 percent of them—around 3.4 million—are concentrated in Bali, one of Indonesia’s developed parts, where only five percent of the people live below the poverty line against 12 percent nationally. Hindus in Indonesia also include those who converted to Hinduism in the 1960s and 1970s in Java and the Indian Hindu diaspora. In Indonesia’s Lombok, Hindus and Muslims jointly pray at the 18th-century Pura Lingsar Temple complex.
Indonesia’s national airline is named after Garuda. Another deity Ganesh’s picture adorns the country’s currency notes highlighting Indonesia’s official promotion of syncretism. A 16-feet high white and gold statue of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of learning and wisdom, atop a lotus was installed on the premises of the Indonesian embassy in Washington in 2013 to honour the country’s Hindu population. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made blessings of Saraswati ‘in the name of Allah, the most benevolent,’ and spoke about religious tolerance when he presided over the installation ceremony. The Huffington Post reported long sleeve blouses and headscarves of observant Muslims contrasted with the brightly coloured strapless and tight sarongs of Balinese dancers at the ceremony. It noted there were some moments during the celebration where the faiths abutted but did not clash, summing up the essence of Indonesia.
In neighbouring Malaysia, the 140-feet high gold-painted statue of Murugan outside the capital Kaula Lumpur is an emblem of the Muslim-majority country’s multiculturalism and pluralism. It is the world’s largest statue of the deity and the sixth tallest Hindu sculpture located near the base of a 272-step flight to a Hindu temple in Batu Caves. Malaysia Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein visited the temple in 1971 to recognise Thaipusam, which commemorates Murugan’s victory over the demon Surapadman as well as the deity’s birth, as a national festival.
People of the Indian-origin, mostly Hindus, account for eight percent of Malaysia’s population. They are the third largest ethnic group in Malaysia and have held key positions in the country. Indian-origin Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu has been among one of the longest-serving ministers (1979 to 2008) in Malaysia. Gobind Singh Deo, Kulasegaran Murugeson (human resources) and Xavier Jayakumar (water, land, and natural resources), Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy (national unity and social well-being), and Sivarasa Rasiah were ministers of Indian origin in Mahathir Mohamad’s last government (2018-2020). In 2020, Saravanan Murugan, another Indian-origin politician, succeeded Murugeson as the human resources minister. Edmund Santhara Kumar Ramanaidu is the second Malaysia-Indian minister in Prime Minister Muhyiddin bin Mohamad Yassin’s government.
Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister, ensured the representation of all ethnic communities including Indians. His rule ushered in harmony and political freedoms. Rahman’s United Malays National Organisation formed a multi-ethnic coalition, which was later expanded and came to be known as Barisan Nasional. The coalition included the Malaysian Indian Congress and governed the country from 1957 to 2018.
Misplaced Indian exceptionalism has fostered the kind of ignorance, to put it mildly, Azad’s farewell speech represented. It has perpetuated the myth of the essentially ‘bad Muslim’ in the so-called Muslim world, which flies in the face of the fact that around two dozen Muslim-majority countries identify themselves as secular. The secular Muslim-majority nations include Indonesia, which embodies pluralism in every sense, and refutes the wilful inaccuracies of Vajpayee’s April 2002 speech, which have become a pandemic now. And ironically he made the speech upon his return from south-east Asia.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan